Saturday, May 9, 2015


The vigor of pulp prose: Alistair MacLean's WHEN EIGHT BELLS TOLL

I remember the first novel by Alistair MacLean I read: Puppet on a Chain. I'd seen the TV commercials for the film version and was intrigued. However, I knew I'd likely not get to see it--I lived in a small town with one walk-in theatre and a drive-in, and in 1971 I could count on one hand the number of movies I'd been to see over the past ten years. If I saw a movie, I watched it on television. Those were the days before cable, and Hollywood films eventually were broadcast on prime-time networks, so I wasn't totally deprived of cinematic spectacle.

Reading Puppet on a Chain--the local library had a copy, and its shelves were well-stocked with the works of many crime and thriller writers--led me to other MacLean novels. (My interest was encouraged by the very dramatic cover paintings and consistent typographic treatments on the Fawcett paperback editions being published at the time. That red bulls-eye dot over the I in Alistair was just the perfect touch.) But most of my interest in MacLean ended by the time I left junior high school.

Seeing some new editions of MacLean on the bookstore shelves in recent years, I picked up When Eight Bells Toll. (It's nice to see some appropriately dramatic cover treatments on these new editions published by Sterling. They don't recall the style used by publishers in the 1960s and '70s for MacLean's books, but they appropriately communicate the dramatic vigor of his storytelling.) I'd not read this one before, and I wondered whether if my memories of MacLean would hold up after all these years. I remembered reading about five years ago an Agatha Christie novel--again, I went through a Christie phase of reading during junior high. I was remarkably bored. It's easy to see why her books receive so many film and TV treatments--activity, dialog, activity. Little to make the characters really interesting other than their tics and mannerisms and the murders happening around them.

Fortunately for me, this particular MacLean novel appeared (1966) during his glory days as a thriller writer. Some of his later works just didn't carry my interest, even when I was reading them as they were published. The first-person narrator is a man of action, and his cynical outlook combines with his sense of duty and his remarkable facility to survive to fashion an interesting character. He's a creature of his times--the 1966s were the days of James Bond's rising popularity, the aging of Cold War/Fear of the Bomb angst, and the growth of cultural unrest.

The following passage from late in the book--pages 186 and 187 in the 1966 Doubleday hardcover--give a sense of the vigor and action in MacLean's prose as his protagonist, Philip Calvert, describes an ally (Hutchinson) he's just recruited. It's the sort of writing one might have seen in the best Adventure or Blue Book writers (although one might argue they would have communicated the same in a shorter passage):

Those huge hands on the throttle and wheel had the delicacy of a moth. He had the night-sight of a barn owl and an ear which could infallibly distinguish between waves breaking in the open sea, on reefs or on shores: he could invariably tell the size and direction of seas coming at him out of the darkness and mist and touch wheel to throttle as need be: he had an inbuilt computer which provided instant correlation of wind, tide, current and our own speed and always let him know exactly where he was. And I'll swear he could smell land, even on a lee shore and with the rest of us suffering olfactory paralysis from the fumes of the big black cigars which seemed to be an inseparable part of the man. It required only ten minutes beside him to realize that one's ignorance of the sea and ships was almost total. A chastening discovery.

He took the Charmaine out through the Scylla and Charybdis of that evil alleged harbor entrance under full throttle. Foaming white-fanged reefs reached out at us, bare feet away, on either side. He didn't seem to notice them. He certainly didn't look at them. The two "boys" he'd brought with him, a couple of stunted lads of about six foot two or thereabouts, yawned prodigiously. Hutchinson located the Firecrest a hundred yards before I could even begin to imagine I could see any shape at all and brought the Charmaine alongside as neatly as I could park my car by the kerb in broad daylight--on one of my better days, that was.

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Duane, Puppet on a Chain was my favorite MacLean novel,. It also led me to read others.
My own favourites were THE GOLDEN RENDEZVOUS and THE SATAN BUG.

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